I loved this scintillating and sleuthily researched account of the curious life and career of Maud West, one of Britain's first and best-known female detectives who ran her own detective agency from London's New Oxford Street for more than 30 years from 1905. Her exploits hit the headlines, but in that class-obsessed, male-dominated world, West hid aspects of her own identity. Consequently as Stapleton—a former bookseller at Wenlock Books—discovers, she was a most unreliable witness to her own life.
Actually, many of West’s experiences are verifiable, likely and bracingly liberated, and Stapleton’s obsessive study of her life is particularly valuable to those of us addicted to early twentieth-century novels and memoirs. She lived and worked through exciting times: there was the First World War, the decline of aristocracy and deference, the jazz age, the creep of fascism and the growing awareness of and reflection on the roles and lives of women – which could lead to revolution but sometimes ended in neuroticism as “surplus women” competed for potential lovers, whose number had been greatly reduced by the war.
Written with wit and scrupulous attention to detail, the book weaves West’s exploits (both true and fabricated) with Stapleton’s experience of tracking her quarry using newspaper archives, electoral registers, census records and online databases. She has her work cut out identifying West amid the hundreds of Maud Wests on the 1911 census; matters are further complicated when she discovers that she was born under another name. West’s family background and relationship status prove similarly hard to pin down. After a series of dead-ends, the author doggedly solves the mystery of West’s disappearance in 1939. Not for nothing does she wonder if her own sleuthing powers are a match for her “slippery” subject.
This is one of those biographies, of which A J A Symons’s The Quest for Corvo is the finest example, that is as much about the biographer’s research processes as their ostensible subject. Although Stapleton does not indulge in much literal legwork – she is able to do a lot of her research in her pyjamas – this account of her pursuit of the will-o’-the-wisp-like Maud through the maze of online archives and registries is utterly enthralling, often even thrilling... The warp and weft of the social fabric underwent astonishingly rapid changes over this period, and Stapleton’s book is as valuable a reflection on this as it is a biography of one phenomenal woman.
This is a book that gets better as it goes on, the more the reader knows about West. I kept thinking as I read that she would fare better on the screen than the page and impressively, the television rights have already been sold to ITV Studios and Tall Story Pictures — a testament to how compelling a character West is. There is just a little too much of the author in this biography and not quite enough of its fascinating subject.
Susannah Stapleton’s erudite but hugely entertaining debut is a true-life detective story about the quest for a true-life detective. A longstanding fan of Golden Age crime fiction, Stapleton is reading a 1930s Gladys Mitchell novel featuring the sleuth Mrs Bradley when she has a sudden thought: were there any non-fictional female sleuths around at the time? Reaching for her laptop, she soon finds a reference to Maud West, who billed herself as ‘London’s only lady detective’. And with that, writes Stapleton, in by no means the book’s only use of classic detective-story phrases, ‘The game was afoot’.
Stapleton is a frank and funny writer, her only fault being a slight tendency to pad. She is skilful in mingling two strands of social history: the daily working life of a self-employed lady detective in the early 20th century chronicling the crimes she solved; and the true life story of a complex woman who, as Stapleton puts it,“took the poor hand dealt to her at birth and transformed it into a life that would be the envy of millions”.
West’s private life was difficult to unpick but turns out to have been rather more prosaic than her colourful career. Even so, the records offer up a range of subterfuges: one of Maud’s sons, for example, stole the identity of his uncle, a dentist, so that he could practise dentistry without passing the exams first. The wider history is occasionally a little broad-brush, but Stapleton has that most important skill: a feel for the everyday detail that makes the past come to life. She lists the items put up for sale by West in her local paper in Finchley: a tennis kit from Harrods, a lady’s bicycle and a Harley-Davidson with a sidecar. You could write a whole novel of the 1920s from that list, encompassing enthusiasms and fashions and the ebb and flow of middle-class fortunes. The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detectiveis delightfully well written, with both sympathy and empathy; it is jaunty, engaging and witty without being arch. A triumph.